As it prepared for a winter of discontent among retail natural gas customers, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. faced the year’s shortest day Wednesday acknowledging violations and accepting civil penalties handed out by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the giant combination utility’s mishandling of the record-keeping at its long-closed Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant in the far northwest end of California.

Aside from its regulatory mea culpas, the utility encouraged its natural gas utility customers to earn a 20% rebate on their next month’s bills by cutting their usage in the current month at least 10%.

The PG&E utility’s nuclear power executive assured that the same type of errors (from 40 years ago) could not happen with today’s much more comprehensive record-keeping system for nuclear plants.

While trying to help customers mitigate expected 40% to 50% increases in natural gas prices this winter, PG&E’s utility could not avoid admitting it mishandled the records on the location of three 18-inch fuel rod segments and a small amount of non-fuel nuclear material at the Humboldt plant, which has been closed for nearly three decades. In July 2004, the utility discovered the discrepancy in record-keeping related to the location of nuclear material from the late 1960s.

“We regret that shortcoming in our past record-keeping caused this problem, and acknowledge that the level of detail and thoroughness of records we kept in the 1960s and 70s are nowhere near the levels they are today,” said Dave Oatley, vice president/generation manager of the PG&E utility’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant along the central coast of California. “Given the meticulous nature of the records we keep today, we can guarantee that this will never happen again.”

In a separate public announcement Wednesday, PG&E’s utility expressed concern for its natural gas customers this winter and re-emphasized a number of tips, tools and information that it has available to assist customers “in managing their costs,” along with an expansion of its various payment options and financial assistance programs for the winter season, including the Winter Customer Care and Relief Program.

The “10/20 Winter Gas Savings Program” was proposed jointly to the California Public Utilities Commission by the utility and the utility consumer group, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), this past fall, and approved by the CPUC last month. The program is expected to provide customer rebates totaling about $158 million this winter, and all residential and small business customers are eligible.

Regarding the NRC violations, PG&E pointed out that the federal regulatory agency concluded the utility’s investigation was “thorough and complete,” and that the company had taken “prompt and comprehensive corrective action.” The NRC agreed “there is no evidence to support the theft or diversion of the fuel segments or other non-fuel nuclear material environment,” the utility’s Oatley said. “All used fuel and nuclear material at the utility’s Diablo Canyon plant is, and always has been, completely accounted for.”

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